Five men lay dying as Sierra Leone's peace pact - and the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission in the world today - was shot to pieces in a gun battle outside the home of the country's infamous rebel leader and now government minister, Foday Sankoh.
Many Sierra Leoneans who jammed a helicopter pad in efforts to flee the city said they were not shocked by Monday's outbreak of violence. After UN troops were taken hostage last week, in fact, they expected it. What surprised them was the UN's inability to cope with the crisis. One man posed a question that officials at UN headquarters are surely debating today: "Was the UN really ready to come to Africa again?"
This was supposed to be the mission that restored UN pride after deadly failures during the mid-1990s in Rwanda and Somalia. More than 8,700 peacekeeping troops have been dispatched to this tiny West African country since a peace deal brokered by Western powers was signed by the democratically elected government and rebels of the Revolutionary United Front in July 1999.
One of the mission's main tasks was to disarm rebels, pro-government fighters known as kamajores, and members of the mutinous Sierra Leonean Army. But this week it became clear that all three groups are still heavily armed, nearly a year after the peace deal was signed.
Over the past week, the rebels have taken more than 200 peacekeepers hostage. Another 300 are missing. Peacekeepers have relinquished their guns, tanks, and uniforms to young thugs who now strut the countryside in the UN's distinctive blue berets.
"The UN peacekeeping mission cannot force people to stop fighting," says the mission's spokesman, Philip Winslow. "It is there to keep a peace that has already been agreed."
But critics say it was an error to think diplomacy could work when the UN is dealing with a feared rebel force that raped young girls, burned families alive, and hacked off the hands of thousands of innocent people during eight years of civil war.
"We have been treating them like trusted statesmen," says one senior UN official in Freetown, who would not be named for fear of losing his job.
Mr. Sankoh has yet to admit that the RUF has taken hostages. Yet the UN's top representative in Sierra Leone, Oluyemi Adeniji, told journalists, "Sankoh has given us our word" that he will "check" into the allegations.
The UN pulled in all its staff members from the countryside and ordered all its 224 nonessential staff members to evacuate the capital on emergency flights. More than 200 British paratroopers landed in the capital late May 8 to help secure the airport and assist their nationals in fleeing.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked the five permanent Security Council members for the creation of a rapid reaction force to reinforce the mandated 11,000 peacekeepers. But no one has come on board, and Western leaders are lobbying for a Nigerian-led West African army to return to Sierra Leone.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo hosted a meeting May 9 for leaders of nine African countries, including Sierra Leone and Liberia, to discuss sending more troops to the embattled country. The Clinton administration said it would decide on financial and logistical support for the troops after this meeting.
With the peace accord faltering and the West African nation in danger of erupting into civil war, many analysts insist that there's not much UN peacekeepers can do or should do.
"It seems we made some false assumptions," says a US official who asked not to be named, "that the people who signed the peace accord actually wanted peace. That was a mistake, and we should have known better. This whole mission is becoming a mockery."
The most deadly blunder unfolded May 8 when a seething crowd of at least 5,000 people marched on Sankoh's house to demand he end the violence.
"We are ready for revenge," yelled Ibrahim Bangua, one of dozens of sweating young men racing toward the house. "He is kidnapping UN soldiers. His boys haven't disarmed. We are sick of it! If the UN can't do the job, let us go. We will take care of him."
The volatile throng of thousands had spent three hours moving through the streets of this seaside capital - yet the UN peacekeepers had done almost nothing to prepare for the obvious threat of violence. The frenzied protesters easily pushed their way through UN barricades and a thin line of some 70 blue-beret soldiers.
Within 20 minutes, the crowd had broken past the UN barricades, pulled down phone lines, and advanced down a dirt lane that led to Sankoh's gate.
The armed rebels, who have long guarded the house alongside peacekeepers, could not be contained. Some aimed menacing rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles at the crowd. "Please, don't fire," a Nigerian soldier begged of one jittery rebel. "If I want to shoot," the young thug replied. "I will shoot."
Seconds later, he did. It was unclear who fired the first shot - rebels, UN troops, or a civilian protester - but, from a flimsy tin shed on Sankoh's property, the Monitor witnessed rebels in sunglasses and baggy T-shirts blasting their AK-47s into the crowd in long volleys of gunfire.
Sankoh made an appearance after the gunfight, before disappearing, telling other journalists who returned to the scene: "This is not the practice of democracy.... How can you attack a man you call a peacemaker?"
But the fact is that few people in Freetown would call Sankoh a peacemaker. People were so desperate for an end to the rebels' reign of terror that - when the international community failed to intervene - the government felt compelled to agree to peace. The RUF rebels won blanket amnesty for their war crimes and top positions in government.
Despite Sankoh's public appeals for his rebels to disarm, diplomacy and persuasion haven't persuaded many fighters in the countryside to cooperate with the UN's demobilization program. Rebels still control much of the north and the country's eastern diamond-rich region.
"This war is about diamonds," the author of "Why Peacekeeping Fails," Dennis Jett, told CNN. "Unless RUF is removed from the diamond fields, there will be no peace in Sierra Leone."
In Freetown, some soldiers quietly say that the UN mission in Sierra Leone, known as UNAMSIL, has not had enough support from the West's more sophisticated militaries. The peacekeepers here have come from India, Zambia, Kenya, Ghana, Jordan, Bangladesh, and Guinea. There is no doubt troops are working hard under tremendous pressure, but the mission is under-resourced and ill-equipped.
UN spokesman Fred Eckhard says troops at times lack basic equipment such as helmets or use dilapidated arms and communications devices. "We're still getting to know the terrain, still working out our command and control relations with people from other cultures and other countries, still waiting for the rest of the equipment to arrive," Mr. Eckhard adds. "They're not settled in. They don't have all their kits, don't know the terrain. And so it was during this vulnerable period that these things happened."
Blame for the situation, Eckhard insists, belongs with the rebels who have not laid down their arms and have violated the Lom peace accord signed last July.
Some Africa watchers say the criticisms of the operation should be directed at the permanent members of the UN Security Council: the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China.
"I put the blame on the shoulders of the permanent members of the Security Council. They're the ones who made the decision to go through with the pretense of doing something about Sierra Leone when they knew that there were very real problems and risks entailed with the Lom accords," says Chester Crocker, a former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs. (See US/Sierra Leone, facing page.)
"The UN is not a NATO force. It was not designed to go into Sierra Leone and enforce the parties to comply with anything. Frankly, the UN has been getting a bum rap. Its peacekeepers should act as honest brokers rather than outside enforcers," says Hurst Hannum, professor of international law at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. "UN peacekeepers are not required to commit suicide."
"The UN was not created to stop civil wars wherever they occur," he adds. "There's a civil war in Colombia. We don't blame the UN because the Colombian civil war continues. Why should we blame the UN when civil wars in Africa continue?"
Despite the crushing embarrassment this mission has become, UN spokespeople say they will not pull out of Sierra Leone. "It is essential that we remain," said a mission's spokesman here, David Wimhurst.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society